Annual conferences present the ideal opportunity for attendees to gain new knowledge and learn about the latest developments in their industry or profession. But the challenge for conference organizers is to find the best way to reach those attendees and help them get the maximum benefit from their continuing education and certification experiences. For Clark Ebbert, director of conference education for the National Apartment Association (NAA), the key is offering a variety of options that will accommodate multiple learning styles. “Our programs include sessions with different durations,” he explains. “The majority are 60 minutes long, but we also offer deep dive sessions (half day) and some short, 30-minute sessions.”
Mike Doane is the marketing manager for CadmiumCD, a company that builds technology for educational conferences. He makes a distinction between continuing education and continuous education. “Continuing education is what everyone calls adult learning. It kind of has this stiff connotation that you’re going to a classroom, you’re going to sit there and someone is going to speak at you. You’re going to write some notes, then you’re going to go take a test or something like that afterwards. That’s not really learning. That’s just taking classes and then regurgitating knowledge, whereas continuous education is more about being involved with the learning. It’s about active engagement with other adults or other continuous learners. It’s not only about memorizing a bunch of material. It’s more about knowing where to find the knowledge that you need and collaborating with others.
“One trend we are seeing is that organizations are now adding complementary certificate programs to enhance the value of their overall membership and address some skill areas that are not suitable for testing via a certification examination.” — Christine Murphy Peck
“A couple days at a conference yields far too much information to be memorized and retained,” Doane explains in his company’s white paper on the subject. “Attendees take part in so many sessions that much of the information is soon forgotten or lost after they return to the office. This is where continuous education comes in. Continuous education is the idea that, in a society founded upon communication and technology, knowledge is available and accessible at any time.” He says that today’s attendees want content that’s stored in the cloud so it is instantly accessible from their smartphones, tablets and PCs anywhere at any time.
Ebbert described how he keeps attendees involved in the sessions. “Our presenters engage attendees with polling, Q&A and other techniques, right from the start of the session. I see that other associations are using software platforms, and I see NAA moving in that direction within the next 18 months.”
“We’ve been expanding our (event) app to include live polling so attendees can interact with different questions a speaker puts up on the screen in real time,” Doane explains, adding that the app also can be used to conduct a survey after the session.
He says that gamification, such as the use of a scavenger hunt or trivia contest, offers another way to keep attendees engaged. “Technology is crucial to continuous education, but things like that aren’t just fun and games,” he notes. “It’s really about getting people talking to each other, engaging with the material at your conference, whether it’s material from your sessions or your trade show. (Gamification) needs to have a purpose.”
Attendees learn not just from the sessions they attend — they also learn from each other. “Attendee-to-attendee connections and interactions are more important than going to hear a speaker that’s popular or something like that,” Doane explains. “What you’re going to be able to take away with a connection to another attendee is that you can reach out to that other person that you met at the conference, and say, ‘I need a different perspective on this, what do you think?’ If they don’t have the answer, maybe they’ll know where to get it. It’s a vast network and social media is part of that. You can connect with people on LinkedIn and you can be part of a group, and that becomes a resource in itself.”
Ebbert says that one of the key challenges his organization faces is to get call-for-presentation submitters to clearly understand what types of sessions NAA is looking for. “It helps to be prescriptive on the front end, and I usually provide data from our post-conference surveys to help submitters better understand who our attendees are (age, gender, years of experience, position within the industry, what topics are they interested in, etc.). I engage multiple committees who focus on key issues to get them to submit through my call for presentations.”
CadmiumCD offers a product called Abstract Scorecard that streamlines and simplifies the process of calling for papers. “Conference organizers can set up something like a checklist for their reviewers and have people submit abstracts,” Doane explains. “The abstracts go into a database, and you can assign reviewers to different categories, different sessions and different types of papers, and they can go in and see the review criteria. You can have a team of five reviewers or 50 reviewers, and the chairperson or head of that review group can go in and see an overhead view of what grade each reviewer gave each abstract and make selections from there. It gets away from all of the email and spreadsheets. It can be a real hassle doing it the old-fashioned way.”
Professional certification programs also are a critical component of conference education programs, and these are evolving, as well. Christine Murphy Peck, senior director, education and learning services for SmithBucklin in Washington, DC, shared some insights into their importance.
“Since professional workers are facing increasing job complexities and more demands on their knowledge base, they are turning to their representative associations to provide education with demonstrated proof of learning. In short, they want certification,” she says. “Certification provides credibility, signifying that professionals are competent in their respective fields and were successfully tested in specific subject matters. Through a structured continuing education program, certificants can document they have maintained their knowledge base in a given industry.
“Accredited certification programs also help protect the public’s safety by ensuring that the commission members who grant the certifications are also currently certified and knowledgeable in that particular field and subject area,” she continues. “For the organization, certifications offer options for a long-term revenue stream via certification preparation and continuing education offerings, and there is the potential for establishing a program approval process for organizations wishing to be recognized as continuing education providers.”
In addition, she says, “Certification also has impact on your members’ professional growth and development, including the potential for promotion and increased salary.”
Peck describes some of the changes she’s seeing in association certification programs. “One trend we are seeing is that organizations are now adding complementary certificate programs to enhance the value of their overall membership and address some skill areas that are not suitable for testing via a certification examination. Other things going on in the industry include looking towards remote proctoring, where the candidate takes the exam from home with a webcam and the proctor monitors remotely, and developing innovative item types — exam questions other than standard multiple choice.”
She also shared some of the ways that associations benefit by offering certification programs. “A certification program touches all aspects of an organization. With a commitment to research, program development, policy and procedure establishment, and operations implementation, a certification program can be an extremely valuable asset to an organization by ensuring that members achieve professional status. Certification programs can also be vehicles for recruiting and retaining members, and providing motivation for members to participate in an organization’s educational events.”
Peck cites some statistics to demonstrate the impact of certification programs. “One of SmithBucklin’s client organizations, National Association of Healthcare Access Management (NAHAM), reports an average 10 percent increase of new certificants year to year (based on data from 2009 to 2012). Another client, National Association Medical Staff Services (NAMSS) reports an increase of 20 percent since 2010. In 2014, we launched a new certification program for the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, and to date, the enrollment has exceeded the target by 400 percent.”
She stresses, however, that “launching and maintaining successful certification programs is an endeavor that involves many years of commitment, countless volunteer and staff hours, subject-matter expert input and considerable cost.”
Peck shared some helpful advice for association executives who are considering establishing a new certification program. “(They) should conduct careful research of the marketplace to identify whether there is a gap in competency, service or knowledge in the industry that a new certification program can fill, and determine the target market, including determining who would find value in a certification program provided by their organization. In addition, they will need to determine who would pay for the training, certification examination and continuing education. The ‘marketplace’ includes identifying potential competitors. Who else is out there offering similar types of certification? How many of their members are currently certified by other organizations and what are those organizations?
“Association executives should also keep in mind that the cost of implementing a certification program can extend into the mid-six-figure range,” she adds. “The costs will take time to recoup. The certification program itself is often not the revenue-generating aspect since there are also costs to maintain and manage the program, especially if it involves third-party accreditation. Time is also a consideration. On average, a new certification will take 12–15 months to implement between the time of the end of the research and the launch of the next stages.”
Technology also can play a role in the education and certification process. “One of the greatest features of our conference survey tool is that it can be used for continuing education,” Doane notes. “People can go in and take a quiz based off of the sessions they attended, receive credits and actually receive certification. The system will build out a certification (program) based on the criteria. People can track their credits over time, and when they’ve reached a certain level they can go in and print their certification.”
It appears that the days of just sitting in a session, listening to a speaker, are going away in favor of a more interactive and impactful experience that continues long after the session is over. Delivering that kind of optimal experience requires some additional learning on the part of planners, as well. As Jeff Hurt, executive V.P., education and engagement of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting, says, “The boundaries between a meeting planner and education professionals are blending. Effective conference education requires a professional who knows, understands, applies and coaches others to apply the current learning research to adult education. Scheduling speakers is no longer enough.” AC&F